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Labriola on the 53-man roster

Posted Sep 3, 2017

The Steelers completed the moves necessary to put together their initial 53-man roster of 2017.

It was eight months in the making, and it’s very likely not settled yet.

Starting on the day after the loss in the AFC Championship Game to New England, the Steelers began putting together the group with which they planned to make another run at a championship.

Not surprisingly, many of the moves involved their defense, specifically their pass defense, with the most significant coming less than a week ago when they signed cornerback Joe Haden after he was released by the Cleveland Browns. One week from today, the Steelers will open their regular season with a game against the Browns in Cleveland, and the only certainty is that the 53 players on the roster today won’t be the 53 players on the roster on Sept. 10.

QUARTERBACKS
(3): Josh Dobbs, Landry Jones, Ben Roethlisberger
2016: Landry Jones, Zach Mettenberger, Ben Roethlisberger

The depth chart at this position seemingly was set as soon as the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Josh Dobbs. Following a period of depending on veterans to fill the role of backup quarterback and having that consistently blow up in their faces because of injuries, the Steelers reversed the trend by deciding to draft and develop their own backup quarterback.

It worked with Landry Jones, originally a fourth-round pick in 2013, and they are following the same recipe with Dobbs. It took Jones a couple of seasons to get comfortable with the NFL and the style of football played at the professional level, and Dobbs will be brought along in a similar fashion. As incongruous as it might seem given the history of the Tennessee program, Dobbs had no position coach during his college career, and his mechanics reflect that. Dobbs improved over the course of the preseason, and the game-winning drive in the preseason finale was a nice cherry on top, but there’s no question he’s raw and clearly No. 3 on this depth chart.

During the camp/preseason phase, it was fun to watch Dobbs, but now the importance/attention shifts to Ben Roethlisberger, who played very briefly in just one preseason game but put on some impressive exhibitions of throwing accuracy during warm-ups. Jones missed the bulk of training camp with an abdominal injury, but the Steelers re-signed him to a two-year contract early in the offseason because they’re comfortable with him as Roethlisberger’s backup.

RUNNING BACKS
(3): James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Terrell Watson (Note: Le’Veon Bell currently does not count on the team’s 53-man roster)
2016: Roosevelt Nix, Daryl Richardson, Fitz Toussaint, DeAngelo Williams

The most compelling issue to be resolved here over the course of the summer was finding a No. 3. The preseason began with Fitz Toussaint as the starter, and by the third of the four games, Knile Davis was given the start and the opportunity to pair a solid performance out of the backfield with his kickoff return ability to make the job his own. But in that game, Davis had 21 yards on seven carries, one catch for 9 yards, and three kickoff returns for 61 yards.

At the same time, Watson, the first-year pro from Azusa Pacific who announced his presence during a goal-line drill at camp when he scored multiple touchdowns, led the team with 82 yards from scrimmage – 40 yards rushing on eight carries and 42 yards receiving. That earned Watson the start in the fourth preseason game, and he cemented his spot with 19 carries for 89 yards.

TIGHT ENDS
(3): Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald
2016: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, David Johnson

That the Steelers don’t view Jesse James as a No. 1 tight end in the NFL is suggested by the fact they’ve added a veteran free agent in each of the last two offseasons. In 2016 it was Ladarius Green as a marquee unrestricted free agent signing in March, and this time it was a late-in-the-preseason trade for Vance McDonald. Neither James nor Xavier Grimble consistently exhibited the consistency the Steelers were seeking, and so McDonald was acquired in a trade that essentially could end up costing the Steelers fewer than 10 slots on the third day of the 2018 draft.

WIDE RECEIVERS
(6): Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster
2016: Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers, Markus Wheaton

The return of Martavis Bryant represents the most dynamic improvement in this group, and a couple of plays during the preseason finale could have been the difference in the last competition for a roster spot: Sammie Coates vs. Justin Hunter. While Hunter made a nice finger-tip catch of a deep ball from Josh Dobbs to complete a 58-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against the Panthers, Coates once again flashed inconsistent hands on a couple of occasions.

Coates started training camp on the PUP list following knee surgery, and he earlier had undergone surgery to repair the fingers he broke last season. Hunter, signed as an unrestricted free agent, got off to a quick start in Latrobe, but then he plateaued and seemingly opened the door for Coates, who had special teams play as an argument in his favor. But Coates’ hands remained inconsistent throughout, and Hunter helped himself with a big play against Carolina.

Fans had been suggesting for months that the Steelers make a trade involving one of their receivers, and the team was successful in dealing Coates to the Cleveland Browns, but the return turned out to be much less than the initial investment in drafting the player in the third round in 2015.

OFFENSIVE LINE
(9): David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Marcus Gilbert, Jerald Hawkins, Chris Hubbard, Maurkice Pouncey, Al Villanueva
2016: David DeCastro, Ryan Harris, Ramon Foster, B.J. Finney, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, Maurkice Pouncey, Al Villanueva, Cody Wallace

The top seven players have been known for some time: the five starters, plus B.J. Finney as the top reserve along the interior and Chris Hubbard as the top reserve at tackle. It was assumed Jerald Hawkins would make a big jump from a rookie season that showed promise before an injury forced him to the injured reserve list, but Hawkins didn’t live up to that expectation, and as the preseason was coming to a conclusion, he was involved in a three-way fight for spot No. 8 with Matt Feiler and Brian Mihalik.

For the second straight season, the Steelers kept nine offensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster, but this could be an area where they look to make a move once Bell counts on the roster. Both Mihalik and Hawkins have practice squad eligibility.

DEFENSIVE LINE
(6): Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton
2016: Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Ricardo Mathews, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton

This year’s version is a better and deeper unit, and a big part of that can be traced to the addition of Tyson Alualu and the development of L.T. Walton. There had been some expectations that Johnny Maxey would build off his rookie season when he was activated from the practice squad late and showed some potential, but that didn’t materialize, and Dan McCullers became the No. 6 player in this unit.

LINEBACKERS
(9): Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, L.J. Fort, James Harrison, Tyler Matakevich, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams
2016: Anthony Chickillo, L.J. Fort, James Harrison, Steven Johnson, Jarvis Jones, Tyler Matakevich, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams

The idea since the beginning of this offseason was to enter the regular season with a more productive outside pass rush, and because this season will begin with two new starters at the outside linebacker spots – rookie T.J. Watt on the right side and Bud Dupree on the left side – there is some hope that could materialize.

The strategy with James Harrison seemed to have worked well, with him spending virtually all of camp and the preseason concentrating mainly on strength and conditioning only to record a sack in his only real playing time during the preseason finale. There is hope that Anthony Chickillo has completed the transition from 280-pound college defensive lineman to 255-pound NFL outside linebacker, and he has the potential to be a contributor to the pass rush.

Vince Williams is a starting inside linebacker now that Lawrence Timmons is in Miami, and Tyler Matakevich would be the first guy off the bench were the team to need an inside linebacker. But the most important linebacker, and maybe the most important defensive player, is Ryan Shazier, who had interceptions in the last two regular season games in 2016, in the first two postseason games in 2016, and another interception in his first and only appearance this preseason.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
(11): Brian Allen, Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Joe Haden, Will Gay, Robert Golden, Mike Hilton, Mike Mitchell, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton
2016: Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Will Gay, Justin Gilbert, Robert Golden, Mike Hilton, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas

That the Steelers are keeping more defensive backs than any other position, and because there continued to be significant turnover of personnel late in the preseason both illustrate the dissatisfaction with what had been the status quo here. Ross Cockrell went from being a starter when the preseason opened to a member of the New York Giants shortly after it ended. Joe Haden was signed after the Browns cut him for not taking a pay cut, and he’ll start opposite Artie Burns. Coty Sensabaugh was signed as an unrestricted free agent and could be the starter in the slot.

In the days between now and the regular season opener, there could be more moves made. The Steelers kept only four safeties among their 11 defensive backs, and therefore could be scanning the cuts to add a player there; and with rookie Cam Sutton re-injuring the hamstring that kept him on the sideline through virtually all of training camp, he could be a candidate for injured reserve/designated to return.

SPECIALISTS
(3): Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Kameron Canaday
2016: Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Greg Warren

When it became clear that Greg Warren’s career would be ended by an injury, the Steelers acted quickly by using a sixth-round pick on Colin Holba, his presumptive replacement. But Kameron Canaday proved to be worthy competition, and the decision between the two apparently came down to the very end. There wasn’t anything obvious that was the determining factor, but it’s likely the difference was measured by some edge in consistency.

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